by Kristin Cosentino
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story by Valley teacher Kristin Cosentino.
First of all, let me just say that I have a pretty tough life. I’m not trying to get sympathy; I’m just telling it like it is. It’s been just my mom and me ever since my dad ran off and my brothers and sisters found new places to live.
We live on the streets. We get by as best we can, begging food and sleeping wherever we can find shelter. I hate to admit this, but sometimes when no one gives us food we have to go digging through dumpsters and trash cans. It’s actually not as bad as you might think. It always amazes me the amount of food people throw out and good stuff, too–whole sandwiches, bags of rolls, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, a cake or some cookies. But the best places to go are restaurants. They throw away so much food the whole city could eat for free. I love Chinese; Mom prefers Mexican. We both like Indian food.
So that’s my life, just Mom and me–oh, and my best friend Eddie. He’s a great guy. We spend as much time as we can together, when he’s not in school. I don’t go to school, but Eddie does. So every day after school I meet him down the block from his apartment and I walk home with him. He’ll tell me all about his day and he usually has a funny story or two to tell me.
Like one time his teacher came to school with two different shoes on. How does that happen? Or another time the principal slipped in a puddle and fell flat on his butt. I crack up when he tells me things like that and I wish I could go to school, too, but he says it’s mostly pretty boring, so maybe it’s better that I don’t have to go.
Sometimes Eddie asks me about my day, but I never have much to say. It’s just the same old thing every day, and none of it is very interesting. I’d rather listen to him talk.
So today we’re walking home as usual. It’s a cool autumn day and we’re in a good mood because Eddie has a three-day weekend coming up. Then we’ll have lots more time to play together. We’re just walking along, minding our own business, when a little pickup truck driven by a man with a long black beard pulls up next to us and stops. We just keep walking, not really thinking anything of it.
Suddenly I hear footsteps running up behind us, and the man with the beard grabs Eddie and starts dragging him towards the pickup. I’m frozen for a minute because I can’t believe what just happened. Then I spring into action and attack the man, trying to make him let go of Eddie, but he’s a lot bigger than me. He yells at me in an angry, raspy voice as I try to get him to drop my friend. Then he kicks me hard and it hurts. I’m stunned for a moment and then I rush at him again, but he’s already putting Eddie in the pickup. Before I can reach him, he jumps in the front seat and slams the door. He screeches off and I chase after the pickup, but he’s too fast and I can only make it two blocks before I stop, gasping for breath. The last thing I see before the pickup disappears is a license plate with a sunset and a tall cactus on it.
I stand there in the middle of the street for a minute, trying to figure out what I should do. Mom! That’s it! She’ll know what to do. So I run around the neighborhood looking for her, and I finally find her going through a trash can next to a little taco shop. She stops when I call out to her, and as soon I catch my breath I tell her what happened.
She isn’t much help at all. She listens quietly and then she tells me that we should stay out of it. She says that we have enough problems of our own to be worrying about someone else’s. I’m so disappointed in her. I start to run off again to try to find someone else to help, but she orders me to stay with her.
I mope around the rest of the afternoon, upset about Eddie and mad at my mom. We go to the park and lay down for a nap, but all I can do is think about what happened. I go over it again and again in my mind, trying to remember other details, but all I can come up with is the beard and the license plate. I couldn’t even tell what color the pickup was. Great; some friend I am.
That evening Mom decides she wants burgers, so we go behind Nate’s Drive-In and find a clear plastic trash bag that looks like it has some good leftovers in it. She rips the bag open–I hate when she does that–and we start picking through the food.
I come upon a white paper bag and when I open it up, the smell of the food wafts up to my nostrils. I freeze and just stand there, motionless. That smell! I suddenly remember something else about this afternoon. I close my eyes and concentrate. When the little pickup parked next to us, I caught a whiff of this exact smell: a burger and fries. And there was something else–something white fell out of the pickup when the man was putting Eddie in. It might have been a paper bag like this one!
I drop the bag and run off, back towards the spot where it happened. My mom calls to me, but I ignore her and keep going. This is too important.
When I arrive, I look around on the sidewalk and the gutter and there it is, crumpled up and covered in dirty shoe prints– a paper bag just like the one behind the burger place. I open the bag and see a crust of a burger, a few fries, and a small slip of white paper. I take the paper out and look at it. It’s crumpled up and faded, so I can’t read it. I decide that it’s an important clue though, so I take it and drop the bag on the sidewalk.
I’m not sure what I should do with it. I already tried getting help from my mom, but obviously she didn’t care. Plus she’s probably pretty mad at me for running off like I did. There’s only one other place I can think to go: Eddie’s apartment. I don’t really want to go there, because I don’t think his mom likes me too much. Whenever I come around, she acts like she wants me to leave. His dad seems OK. He usually just kind of ignores me and I’m OK with that. But since they’re his parents, they must be worried about him, so I make up my mind to go there.
I trot down the block to the apartment complex. It’s a dump. Really. I mean, I know I don’t even have a home, so I suppose he’s lucky that he does, but honestly it isn’t much better than living on the streets. There’s trash all over the parking lot, broken window screens and tagging on the walls. And it always smells like cigarettes, diapers, and garbage.
I go straight to Eddie’s apartment and drop the receipt on the doorstep where his parents will be sure to see it. I’m sitting there, trying to decide how to get their attention so that they’ll open the door and see it, when I hear a loud, angry voice in a nearby apartment. Something about it seems familiar, so I cautiously make my way towards the sound of the voice. As I get closer, it gets louder. It’s a man’s voice, kind of raspy and he’s yelling at someone in his apartment. Chills like an electrical charge run down my spine as I realize why the voice is familiar: it’s him! The kidnapper! I’d know that voice anywhere.
I’m suddenly terrified. What if he sees me and kidnaps me, too? He got a pretty good look after all, so I’m sure he’ll recognize me. I have to hide. His apartment faces the parking lot, so I run and cower at the front a nearby car that’s parked facing away from the apartment. I sit very still and listen, but I can’t hear the voice any longer. Either I’m too far away, or he’s stopped yelling.
It’s then that I notice the license plate: it has a picture of a sunset and a cactus on it. Then I look up at the car and see that it’s actually a pickup. The pickup. Unbelievable! There are dozens of cars in the parking lot, and the one I choose to hide behind is his car. This isn’t good. I decide I’d better just get out of here and I no sooner take a step away from the car when footsteps approach, growing closer and closer with each passing second. I peek around the front bumper and I’m horrified to see that it’s him. I can tell by the beard! And he’s coming this way. I jerk my head back. Oh please, please, please don’t see me. I make myself as small as I can and sit very still. But what if he decides to get in the pickup and drive off? He’ll see me hiding here when he backs up. That’s it. I’m done for.
He opens the pickup door and rustles around inside. I peek around and see that he’s leaning into the car with the top half of his body. He seems to be looking for something. My heart hammers in my chest as I wait to see what happens. After what seems like forever the door slams and his footsteps recede. I let out a huge sigh of relief and stay there for a few seconds as my heartbeat returns to normal. Then I get out of there as fast as my legs will take me. I need to be more careful from now on.
I need to find my mom and tell her the news about this guy. She has to help me now, she just has to! But when I finally find her all she does is yell at me for leaving like that when she’d made it clear I was to stay by her side. I try to get a word in, but she refuses to listen.
So we look around the neighborhood for a place to spend the night and decide upon an alley next to a convenience store. We curl up next to each other in the chilly night. The day’s events have me weary and frustrated, and I silently cry myself to sleep.
* * *
My mom nudges me awake early in the morning before it’s even fully light. I stand up, yawning and stretching. I feel much better this morning and I have a renewed sense of purpose. I will find Eddie. I must. So I have to be brave and go back to the apartment complex, but first I have to get away from Mom.
I’m really nice to her, asking her how she slept and making sure she gets the best part of the breakfast we scrounged behind a bakery. She’s suspicious, but she doesn’t say anything, and after we eat I tell her that I’m going to go look for a new blanket for us since it’s starting to get cold at night. I feel bad for lying to her, but what else can I do?
I’m just arriving at the parking lot of Eddie’s apartment when I realize that I don’t really have a plan. I decide that the first step is to confirm that the kidnapper is still here. I look around the parking lot, trying to be inconspicuous. The pickup isn’t here. I’m actually kind of relieved. What would I have done if it was? Still, it’s my only lead, so I wait around for a while to see if the man returns.
Hours pass and he’s still not back. My stomach rumbles and I remember that I haven’t eaten since breakfast, but I can’t leave in case he pulls up while I’m gone. Luckily, I’m able to find some old half-eaten nachos in a bag next to a car. As I’m scarfing them down, I notice there’s a garbage can just a few steps away, and as always, I’m disgusted by the laziness of people. I plant myself behind a bush near the parking spot the pickup was parked in yesterday, and then I wait. It’s really boring and after a while I lie down and try to get comfortable. I realize how very tired I am and I decide to close my eyes for just a moment. I just need to rest my eyes, I tell myself. Just for a moment…
* * *
My eyes fly open and I’m staring straight into the brightest lights I’ve ever seen. I must have fallen asleep, judging by the semi-darkness that surrounds me now. I move my head a little and use the leaves from the bush to block some of the light. Then I peer around the bush to see what’s going on.
The lights belong to a car that’s pulling into the empty space. It approaches; I hold my breath, hoping it’s him–maybe half hoping it’s him. It reaches the parking curb, the lights go out and the car’s engine shuts off. I squint in the darkness and…it’s him! It’s the pickup! The door opens and the kidnapper gets out and slams the door behind him. He begins to walk away towards his apartment.
I’m so excited after my long day waiting for him that I want to shout with joy. I can’t do that, so instead I jump up and down a few times in triumph, but I lose my balance and fall into the bush, making a rustling, snapping noise, and the man turns around. I freeze.
“Who’s over there?” he asks in his raspy voice. He comes back towards the bush where I’m trembling in terror. If he finds me I’m dead. What can I do? I can’t really escape unless I’m really fast and really lucky, and he might come after me because I was a witness to his crime. My heart pounds and I crouch lower to the ground, hoping to make myself invisible, but I don’t have much hope of that.
He’s getting closer. I’m going to have to make a run for it. Closer. I tense up, ready to leap out and book it out of there. He’s almost here, and then…
“Carl!” a different voice calls from behind the man. Carl, I guess his name is, turns around. I let out my breath, which I didn’t even realize I was holding.
“David!” Carl says to someone I can’t see. “How’re you holding up?”
They talk back and forth for a minute, and I finally come to my senses and see that this is my chance to escape. So as they continue their conversation, I creep out of the bush and walk as stealthily as possible to the next bush over. I hide behind it, peek out and see that they’re still deep in conversation, and get ready to make my move. I’m about to take off when something pricks at my consciousness.
David. That’s who Carl is talking to. Eddie’s dad’s name is David. It couldn’t be him, could it? What are the odds? I have to find out. I peek out and try to see the other man, but it’s too dark. I slowly make my way to a nearby car and crawl under it. When I get to the edge of the car, I look up.
It’s him, Eddie’s father. I can hardly believe it. So Eddie’s dad knows his son’s kidnapper. I guess I should have expected that, since they’re practically next door neighbors. How awful for him, to have his son taken by someone he knows. I feel like ripping Carl to shreds, I’m so angry, but that wouldn’t help get Eddie back. I must be logical here.
I watch as the two, still talking, walk back towards their apartments. After they have both gone inside their own front doors, I try to figure out my next move. I need more information–I need to figure out where Eddie is. I decide to scope out Carl’s apartment. But how?
Then I remember that the bedrooms of Eddie’s apartment are the in the back and there are windows that someone could look through. I know they’re low enough for me to see in because sometimes, late at night when he’s supposed to be sleeping, I’ll come and talk to Eddie through the window. There’s no reason Carl’s apartment would be any different since it’s only a few doors down from Eddie’s.
I run as fast as I can to the back of the building, count what I think is the correct number of windows over and creep over, so that I’m directly under Carl’s bedroom window. As I hoped, it’s low enough for me to get a decent view inside if I stand on my tiptoes. My heart beats fast as I slowly raise my body up to the window.
I peek into the room. It’s dark, but there is some light coming from another room, so I can see well enough. It’s a bedroom, as I thought–there’s a rumpled bed, a tall dresser with a TV on it, and a smaller dresser with lamp on it. The room is empty.
I keep watching, though and soon Carl comes in the room and turns on the lamp. I quickly duck down so that just my eyes and the top of my head are visible. He’s got a plate of food, and I assume he’s going to lie on the bed, eat, and watch TV, but his next move surprises me. He unlocks the closet door, opens it and places the plate on the floor of the closet. He says something, shuts the door, locks it and then turns off the light and exits the bedroom.
I drop to the ground in shock and pace around in an anxious circle. Eddie must be in the closet–it’s the only explanation, unless Carl is a serial kidnapper and has some other person in there. I’m so pumped up that I can hardly think.
I have to act fast before something bad happens to Eddie. I race back around to the front of the building and stop right in front of Carl’s door. I start making all the noise I can. I make such a ruckus that I’m sure everyone in the complex can hear me, but I don’t care. I just need Carl to open his door so that I can get in there.
The door flies open and I’m staring at Carl’s angry face. It’s “do or die” time. He makes a move towards me, but I dart around him and into the apartment. I dash through the living room towards the bedroom, but Carl is quick and cuts me off. I make a circle around the apartment: through the kitchen, through the dining room, and back into the living room. Carl is right behind me, trying to grab me, but I manage to elude his grasp. I try to get into the bedroom, but again Carl cuts me off. I make another loop through the apartment and when I get back into the living room I see David coming in the open door, laughing.
“Hey, Carl,” he says, “looks like you got yourself a new friend!”
Carl pauses just long enough for me to sprint into the bedroom. I go straight to the closet door and start making noise again, trying to get David’s attention. Carl rushes in and drags me away from the door. I kick him and bite him, trying to wrestle myself free, when David comes in to see what the commotion is.
“Hey, what’s going on?” he says. I manage to free myself and go right back to the closet. “Hey, I know him,” he says, pointing at me. “He’s a pal of Eddie’s.”
“Yeah, well, he doesn’t have any business being in here,” Carl says, grabbing me again. He drags me towards the bedroom door. I can’t believe I’m going to miss my chance. I continue to struggle and kick and bite him.
“Wait a minute,” David says, still in the bedroom. “I think I hear something in there.” He starts towards the closet. Carl drops me and lunges towards David, tackling him to the floor. “Hey!” David shouts, and they begin to struggle. I do my best to help David, biting Carl when I can and trying to get in between them. This goes on for a long time and I’m getting tired.
Finally, David makes a massive effort and punches Carl square in the nose as hard as he can. Carl drops to the floor, unconscious, blood flowing freely from his nose, and I want to cheer. David tries to open the closet door but it’s locked. He glances around the room for a key, and when he doesn’t see one, he faces the closet door, leans back slightly, and kicks the doorknob, hard. It breaks off and he opens the door. We both gape at what we see inside.
It’s Eddie, bound and gagged.
* * *
“So how long have you known Carl?” a police officer asks David, gesturing towards the police car. Carl is sitting in the back seat, looking down.
“As long as we’ve lived here,” David answers, “and we’ve been here for almost four years. I still can’t believe he did this.” We’re sitting on a curb in the parking lot. He’s holding me with one arm and Eddie with the other. Eddie is exhausted and still shell-shocked, but he manages to smile at me.
As the officer and David continue to talk, I look up at David and a strange feeling comes over me. You see, I never knew my dad; he took off when my brothers and sisters and I were barely born. I never knew a dad could be like this–loving, protective and concerned. I’m sad that I missed having that all these years, but I’m also excited that David seems to feel that way about me. Could I be so lucky?
“Well,” I hear him saying to the officer, “I think we’re going to keep him after this. Eddie tells me he’s a stray.” I’m so excited I can’t help licking his face. Then I lick Eddie’s and he laughs and lets me do it.
“Good dog,” David says to me, patting me on the head. “Good dog.” I’ve never been so happy in my life.
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